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Chapter 9

IX

The next morning Paolo, when he brought up Colville's breakfast, brought the news that there was to be a veglione at the Pergola Theatre. This news revived Colville's courage. "Paolo," he said, "you ought to open a banking-house." Paolo was used to being joked by foreigners who could not speak Italian very well; he smiled as if he understood.

The banker had his astute doubts of Paolo's intelligence; the banker in Europe doubts all news not originating in his house; but after a day or two the advertisements in the newspapers carried conviction even to the banker.

When Colville went to the ladies with news of the veglione, he found that they had already heard of it. "Should you like to go?" he asked Mrs. Bowen.

"I don't know. What do you think?" she asked in turn.

"Oh, it's for you to do the thinking. I only know what I want."

Imogene said nothing, while she watched the internal debate as it expressed itself in Mrs. Bowen's face.

"People go in boxes," she said thoughtfully; "but you would feel that a box wasn't the same thing exactly?"

"We went on the floor," suggested Colville.

"It was very different then. And, besides, Mrs. Finlay had absolutely no sense of propriety." When a woman has explicitly condemned a given action, she apparently gathers courage for its commission under a little different conditions. "Of course, if we went upon the floor, I shouldn't wish it to be known at all, though foreigners can do almost anything they like."

"Really," said Colville, "when it comes to that, I don't see any harm in it."

"And you say go?"

"I say whatever you say."

Mrs. Bowen looked from him to Imogene. "I don't either," she said finally, and they understood that she meant the harm which he had not seen.

"Which of us has been so good as to deserve this?" asked Colville.

"Oh, you have all been good," she said. "We shall go in masks and dominoes," she continued. "Nothing will happen, and who should know us if anything did?" They had received tickets to the great Borghese ball, which is still a fashionable and desired event of the Carnival to foreigners in Florence; but their preconceptions of the veglione threw into the shade the entertainment which the gentlemen of Florence offered to favoured sojourners.

"Come," said Mrs. Bowen, "you must go with us and help us choose our dominoes."

A prudent woman does not do an imprudent thing by halves. Effie was to be allowed to go to the veglione too, and she went with them to the shop where they were to hire their dominoes. It would be so much more fun, Mrs. Bowen said, to choose the dresses in the shop than to have them sent home for you to look at. Effie was to be in black; Imogene was to have a light blue domino, and Mrs. Bowen chose a purple one; even where their faces were not to be seen they considered their complexions in choosing the colours. If you happened to find a friend, and wanted to unmask, you would not want to look horrid. The shop people took the vividest interest in it all, as if it were a new thing to them, and these were the first foreigners they had ever served with masks and dominoes. They made Mrs. Bowen and Imogene go into an inner room and come out for the mystification of Colville, hulking about in the front shop with his mask and domino on.

"Which is which?" the ladies both challenged him, in the mask's conventional falsetto, when they came out.

With a man's severe logic he distinguished them according to their silks, but there had been time for them to think of changing, and they took off their masks to laugh in his face.

They fluttered so airily about among the pendent masks and dominoes, from which they shook a ghostly perfume of old carnivals, that his heart leaped.

"Ah, you'll never be so fascinating again!" he cried. He wanted to take them in his arms, they were both so delicious; a man has still only that primitive way of expressing his supreme satisfaction in women. "Now, which am I?" he demanded of them, and that made them laugh again. He had really put his arm about Effie.

"Do you think you will know your papa at the veglione?" asked one of the shop-women, with a mounting interest in the amiable family party.

They all laughed; the natural mistake seemed particularly droll to Imogene.

"Come," cried Mrs. Bowen; "it's time we should be going."

That was true; they had passed so long a time in the shop that they did not feel justified in seriously attempting to beat down the price of their dresses. They took them at the first price. The woman said with reason that it was Carnival, and she could get her price for the things.

They went to the veglione at eleven, the ladies calling for Colville, as before, in Mrs. Bowen's carriage. He felt rather sheepish, coming out of his room in his mask and domino, but the corridors of the hotel were empty, and for the most part dark; there was no one up but the porter, who wished him a pleasant time in as matter-of-fact fashion as if he were going out to an evening party in his dress coat. His spirits mounted in the atmosphere of adventure which the ladies diffused about them in the carriage; Effie Bowen laughed aloud when he entered, in childish gaiety of heart.

The narrow streets roared with the wheels of cabs and carriages coming and going; the street before the theatre was so packed that it was some time before they could reach the door. Masks were passing in and out; the nervous joy of the ladies expressed itself in a deep-drawn quivering sigh. Their carriage door was opened by a servant of the theatre, who wished them a pleasant veglione, and the next moment they were in the crowded vestibule, where they paused a moment, to let Imogene and Effie really feel that they were part of a masquerade.

"Now, keep all together," said Mrs. Bowen, as they passed through the inner door of the vestibule, and the brilliantly lighted theatre flashed its colours and splendours upon them. The floor of the pit had been levelled to that of the stage, which, stripped of the scenic apparatus, opened vaster spaces for the motley crew already eddying over it in the waltz. The boxes, tier over tier, blazed with the light of candelabra which added their sparkle to that of the gas jets.

"You and Effie go before," said Mrs. Bowen to Imogene. She made them take hands like children, and mechanically passed her own hand through Colville's arm.

A mask in red from head to foot attached himself to the party, and began to make love to her in excellent pantomime.

Colville was annoyed. He asked her if he should tell the fellow to take himself off.

"Not on any account!" she answered. "It's perfectly delightful. It wouldn't be the veglione without it. Did you ever see such good acting?"

"I don't think it's remarkable for anything but its fervour," said Colville.

"I should like to see you making love to some lady," she rejoined mischievously.

"I will make love to you, if you like," he said, but he felt in an instant that his joke was in bad taste.

They went the round of the theatre. "That is Prince Strozzi, Imogene," said Mrs. Bowen, leaning forward to whisper to the girl. She pointed out other people of historic and aristocratic names in the boxes, where there was a democracy of beauty among the ladies, all painted and powdered to the same marquise effect.

On the floor were gentlemen in evening dress, without masks, and here and there ladies waltzing, who had masks but no dominoes. But for the most part people were in costume; the theatre flushed and flowered in gay variety of tint that teased the eye with its flow through the dance.

Mrs. Bowen had circumscribed the adventure so as to exclude dancing from it. Imogene was not to dance. One might go to the veglione and look on from a box; if one ventured further and went on the floor, decidedly one was not to dance.

This was thoroughly understood beforehand, and there were to be no petitions or murmurs at the theatre. They found a quiet corner, and sat down to look on.

The mask in red followed, and took his place at a little distance, where, whenever Mrs. Bowen looked that way, he continued to protest his passion.

"You're sure he doesn't bore you?" suggested Colville.

"No, indeed. He's very amusing."

"Oh, all right!"

The waltz ceased; the whirling and winding confusion broke into an irregular streaming hither and thither, up and down. They began to pick out costumes and characters that interested them. Clowns in white, with big noses, and harlequins in their motley, with flat black masks, abounded. There were some admirable grasshoppers in green, with long antennae quivering from their foreheads. Two or three Mephistos reddened through the crowd. Several knights in armour got about with difficulty, apparently burdened by their greaves and breastplates.

A group of leaping and dancing masks gathered around a young man in evening dress, with long hair, who stood leaning against a pillar near them, and who underwent their mockeries with a smile of patience, half amused, half tormented.

When they grew tired of baiting him, and were looking about for other prey, the red mask redoubled his show of devotion to Mrs. Bowen, and the other masks began to flock round and approve.

"Oh, now," she said, with a little embarrassed laugh, in which there was no displeasure, "I think you may ask him to go away. But don't be harsh with him," she added, at a brusque movement which Colville made toward the mask.

"Oh, why should I be harsh with him? We're not rivals." This was not in good taste either, Colville felt. "Besides, I'm an Italian too," he said, to retrieve himself. He made a few paces toward the mask, and said in a low tone, with gentle suggestion, "Madame finds herself a little incommoded."

The mask threw himself into an attitude of burlesque despair, bowed low with his hand on his heart, in token of submission, and vanished into the crowd. The rest dispersed with cries of applause.

"How very prettily you did it, both of you!" said Mrs. Bowen. "I begin to believe you are an Italian, Mr. Colville. I shall be afraid of you."

"You weren't afraid of him."

"Oh, he was a real Italian."

"It seems to me that mamma is getting all the good of the veglione," said Effie, in a plaintive murmur. The well-disciplined child must have suffered deeply before she lifted this seditious voice.

"Why, so I am, Effie," answered her mother, "and I don't think it's fair myself. What shall we do about it?"

"I should like something to eat," said the child.

"So should I," said Colville. "That's reparation your mother owes us all. Let's make her take us and get us something. Wouldn't you like an ice, Miss Graham?"

"Yes, an ice," said Imogene, with an effect of adding, "Nothing more for worlds," that made Colville laugh. She rose slowly, like one in a dream, and cast a look as impassioned as a look could be made through a mask on the scene she was leaving behind her. The band was playing a waltz again, and the wide floor swam with circling couples.

The corridor where the tables were set was thronged with people, who were drinking beer and eating cold beef and boned turkey and slices of huge round sausages. "Oh, how can they?" cried the girl, shuddering.

"I didn't know you were so ethereal-minded about these things," said Colville. "I thought you didn't object to the salad at Madame Uccelli's."

"Oh, but at the veglione!" breathed the girl for all answer. He laughed again, but Mrs. Bowen did not laugh with him; he wondered why.

When they returned to their corner in the theatre they found a mask in a black domino there, who made place for them, and remained standing near. They began talking freely and audibly, as English-speaking people incorrigibly do in Italy, where their tongue is all but the language of the country.

"Really," said Colville, "I think I shall stifle in this mask. If you ladies will do what you can to surround me and keep me secret, I'll take it off a moment."

"I believe I will join you, Mr. Colville," said the mask near them. He pushed up his little visor of silk, and discovered the mild, benignant features of Mr. Waters.

"Bless my soul!" cried Colville.

Mrs. Bowen was apparently too much shocked to say anything.

"You didn't expect to meet me here?" asked the old man, as if otherwise it should be the most natural thing in the world. After that they could only unite in suppressing their astonishment. "It's extremely interesting," he went on, "extremely! I've been here ever since the exercises began, and I have not only been very greatly amused, but greatly instructed. It seems to me the key to a great many anomalies in the history of this wonderful people."

If Mr. Waters took this philosophical tone about the Carnival, it was not possible for Colville to take any other.

"And have you been able to divine from what you have seen here," he asked gravely, "the grounds of Savonarola's objection to the Carnival?"

"Not at all," said the old man promptly. "I have seen nothing but the most harmless gaiety throughout the evening."

Colville hung his head. He remembered reading once in a passage from Swedenborg, that the most celestial angels had scarcely any power of perceiving evil.

"Why aren't you young people dancing?" asked Mr. Waters, in a cheerful general way, of Mrs. Bowen's party.

Colville was glad to break the silence. "Mrs. Bowen doesn't approve of dancing at vegliones."

"No?—why not?" inquired the old man, with invincible simplicity.

Mrs. Bowen smiled her pretty, small smile below her mask.

"The company is apt to be rather mixed," she said quietly.

"Yes," pursued Mr. Waters; "but you could dance with one another. The company seems very well behaved."

"Oh, quite so," Mrs. Bowen assented.

"Shortly after I came," said Mr. Waters, "one of the masks asked me to dance. I was really sorry that my age and traditions forbade my doing so. I tried to explain, but I'm afraid I didn't make myself quite clear."

"Probably it passed for a joke with her," said Colville, in order to say something.

"Ah, very likely; but I shall always feel that my impressions of the were a young man like you——"

Imogens turned and looked at Colville through the eye-holes of her mask; even in that sort of isolation he thought her eyes expressed surprise.

"It never occurred to you before that I was a young man," he suggested gravely.

She did not reply.

After a little interval, "Imogene," asked Mrs. Bowen, "would you like to dance?"

Colville was astonished. "The veglione has gone to your head, Mrs. Bowen," he tacitly made his comment. She had spoken to Imogene, but she glanced at him as if she expected him to be grateful to her for this stroke of liberality.

"What would be the use?" returned the girl.

Colville rose. "After my performance in the Lancers, I can't expect you to believe me; but I really do know how to waltz." He had but to extend his arms, and she was hanging upon his shoulder, and they were whirling away through a long orbit of delight to the girl.

"Oh, why have you let me do you such injustice?" she murmured intensely. "I never shall forgive myself."

"It grieved me that you shouldn't have divined that I was really a magnificent dancer in disguise, but I bore it as best I could," said Colville, really amused at her seriousness. "Perhaps you'll find out after a while that I'm not an old fellow either, but only a 'Lost Youth,'"

"Hush," she said; "I don't like to hear you talk so."

"How?"

"About—age!" she answered. "It makes me feel——- Don't to-night!"

Colville laughed. "It isn't a fact that my blinking is going to change materially. You had better make the most of me as a lost youth. I'm old enough to be two of them."

She did not answer, and as they wound up and down through the other orbing couples, he remembered the veglione of seventeen years before, when he had dreamed through the waltz with the girl who jilted him; she was very docile and submissive that night; he believed afterward that if he had spoken frankly then, she would not have refused him. But he had veiled his passion in words and phrases that, taken in themselves, had no meaning—that neither committed him nor claimed her. He could not help it; he had not the courage at any moment to risk the loss of her for ever, till it was too late, till he must lose her.

"Do you believe in pre-existence?" he demanded of Imogene.

"Oh yes!" she flashed back. "This very instant it was just as if I had been here before, long ago."

"Dancing with me?"

"With you? Yes—yes—I think so."

He had lived long enough to know that she was making herself believe what she said, and that she had not lived long enough to know this.

"Then you remember what I said to you—tried to say to you—that night?" Through one of those psychological juggles which we all practise with ourselves at times, it amused him, it charmed him, to find her striving to realise this past.

"No; it was so long ago? What was it?" she whispered dreamily.

A turn of the waltz brought them near Mrs. Bowen; her mask seemed to wear a dumb reproach.

He began to be weary; one of the differences between youth and later life is that the latter wearies so soon of any given emotion.

"Ah, I can't remember, either! Aren't you getting rather tired of the waltz and me?"

"Oh no; go on!" she deeply murmured. "Try to remember."

The long, pulsating stream of the music broke and fell. The dancers crookedly dispersed in wandering lines. She took his arm; he felt her heart leap against it; those innocent, trustful throbs upbraided him. At the same time his own heart beat with a sort of fond, protecting tenderness; he felt the witchery of his power to make this young, radiant, and beautiful creature hang flattered and bewildered on his talk; he liked the compassionate worship with which his tacit confidence had inspired her, even while he was not without some satirical sense of the crude sort of heart-broken hero he must be in the fancy of a girl of her age.

"Let us go and walk in the corridor a moment," he said. But they walked there till the alluring melancholy music of the waltz began again. In a mutual caprice, they rejoined the dance.

It came into his head to ask, "Who is he?" and as he had got past denying himself anything, he asked it.

"He? What he?"

"He that Mrs. Bowen thought might object to your seeing the Carnival?"

"Oh!—oh yes! That was the not impossible he."

"Is that all?"

"Yes."

"Then he's not even the not improbable he?"

"No, indeed."

They waltzed in silence. Then, "Why did you ask me that?" she murmured.

"I don't know. Was it such a strange question?"

"I don't know. You ought to."

"Yes, if it was wrong, I'm old enough to know better."

"You promised not to say 'old' any more."

"Then I suppose I mustn't. But you mustn't get me to ignore it, and then laugh at me for it."

"Oh!" she reproached him, "you think I could do that?"

"You could if it was you who were here with me once before."

"Then I know I wasn't."

Again they were silent, and it was he who spoke first. "I wish you would tell me why you object to the interdicted topic?"

"Because—because I like every time to be perfect in itself."

"Oh! And this wouldn't be perfect in itself if I were—not so young as some people?"

"I didn't mean that. No; but if you didn't mention it, no one else would think of it or care for it."

"Did any one ever accuse you of flattering, Miss Graham?"

"Not till now. And you are unjust."

"Well, I withdraw the accusation."

"And will you ever pretend such a thing again?"

"Oh, never!"

"Then I have your promise."

The talk was light word-play, such as depends upon the talker's own mood for its point or its pointlessness. Between two young people of equal years it might have had meanings to penetrate, to sigh over, to question. Colville found it delicious to be pursued by the ingenuous fervour of this young girl, eager to vindicate her sincerity in prohibiting him from his own ironical depreciation. Apparently, she had a sentimental mission of which he was the object; he was to be convinced that he was unnecessarily morbid; he was to be cheered up, to be kept in heart.

"I must believe in you after this," he said, with a smile which his mask hid.

"Thanks," she breathed. It seemed to him that her hand closed convulsively upon his in their light clasp.

The pressure sent a real pang to his heart. It forced her name from his lips. "Imogene! Ah, I've no right to call you that."

"Yes."

"From this out I promise to be twenty years younger. But no one is to know it but you. Do you think you will know it? I shouldn't like to keep the secret to myself altogether."

"No; I will help you. It shall be our secret."

She gave a low laugh of delight. He convinced himself that she had entered into the light spirit of banter in which he believed that he was talking.

The music ceased again. He whirled her to the seat where he had left Mrs. Bowen. She was not there, nor the others.

Colville felt the meanness of a man who has betrayed his trust, and his self-contempt was the sharper because the trust had been as tacit and indefinite as it was generous. The effect of Mrs. Bowen's absence was as if she had indignantly flown, and left him to the consequences of his treachery.

He sat down rather blankly with Imogene to wait for her return; it was the only thing they could do.

It had grown very hot. The air was thick with dust. The lights burned through it as through a fog.

"I believe I will take off my mask," she said. "I can scarcely breathe."

"No, no," protested Colville; "that won't do."

"I feel faint," she gasped.

His heart sank. "Don't," he said incoherently. "Come with me into the vestibule, and get a breath of air."

He had almost to drag her through the crowd, but in the vestibule she revived, and they returned to their place again. He did not share the easy content with which she recognised the continued absence of Mrs. Bowen.

"Why they must be lost. But isn't it perfect sitting here and watching the maskers?"

"Perfect," said Colville distractedly.

"Don't you like to make romances about the different ones?"

It was on Colville's tongue to say that he had made all the romances he wished for that evening, but he only answered, "Oh, very."

"Poor Mrs. Bowen," laughed the girl. "It will be such a joke on her, with her punctilious notions, getting lost from her protégée at a Carnival ball! I shall tell every one."

"Oh no, don't," said Colville, in horror that big mask scarcely concealed.

"Why not?"

"It wouldn't be at all the thing."

"Why, are you becoming Europeanised too?" she demanded. "I thought you went in for all sorts of unconventionalities. Recollect your promise. You must be as impulsive as I am."

Colville, staring anxiously about in every direction, made for the first time the reflection that most young girls probably conform to the proprieties without in the least knowing why.

"Do you think," he asked, in desperation, "that you would be afraid to be left here a moment while I went about in the crowd and tried to find them?"

"Not at all," she said. But she added, "Don't be gone long."

"Oh no," he answered, pulling off his mask. "Be sure not to move from here on any account."

He plunged into the midst of the crowd that buffeted him from side to side as he struck against its masses. The squeaking and gibbering masks mocked in their falsetto at his wild-eyed, naked face thrusting hither and thither among them.

"I saw your lady wife with another gentleman," cried one of them, in a subtle misinterpretation of the cause of his distraction.

The throng had immensely increased; the clowns and harlequins ran shrieking up and down, and leaped over one another's heads.

It was useless. He went back to Imogene with a heart-sickening fear that she too might have vanished.

But she was still there.

"You ought to have come sooner," she said gaily. "That red mask has been here again. He looked as if he wanted to make love to me this time. But he didn't. If you'd been here you might have asked him where Mrs. Bowen was."

Colville sat down. He had done what he could to mend the matter, and the time had come for philosophical submission. It was now his duty to keep up Miss Graham's spirits. They were both Americans, and from the national standpoint he was simply the young girl's middle-aged bachelor friend. There was nothing in the situation for him to beat his breast about.

"Well, all that we can do is to wait for them," he said.

"Oh yes," she answered easily. "They'll be sure to come back in the course of time."

They waited a half-hour, talking somewhat at random, and still the others did not come. But the red mask came again. He approached Colville, and said politely—

"La signora è partita."

"The lady gone?" repeated Colville, taking this to be part of the red mask's joke.

"La bambina pareva poco lene."

"The little one not well?" echoed Colville again, rising. "Are you joking?"

The mask made a deep murmur of polite deprecation. "I am not capable of such a thing in a serious affair. Perhaps you know me?" he said, taking off his mask, and in further sign of good faith he gave the name of a painter sufficiently famous in Florence.

"I beg your pardon, and thank you," said Colville. He had no need to speak to Imogene—, her hand was already trembling on his arm.

They drove home in silence through the white moonlight of the streets, filled everywhere with the gay voices and figures of the Carnival.

Mrs. Bowen met them at the door of her apartment, and received them with a manner that justly distributed the responsibility and penalty for their escapade. Colville felt that a meaner spirit would have wreaked its displeasure upon the girl alone. She made short, quiet answers to all his eager inquiries. Most probably it was some childish indisposition; Effie had been faint. No, he need not go for the doctor. Mr. Waters had called the doctor, who had just gone away. There was nothing else that he could do for her. She dropped her eyes, and in everything but words dismissed him. She would not even remain with him till he could decently get himself out of the house. She left Imogene to receive his adieux, feigning that she heard Effie calling.

"I'm—I'm very sorry," faltered the girl, "that we didn't go back to her at once."

"Yes; I was to blame," answered the humiliated hero of her Carnival dream. The clinging regret with which she kept his hand at parting scarcely consoled him for what had happened.

"I will come round in the morning," he said. "I must know how Effie is."

William Dean Howells

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